By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
The battles of American soldiers protecting democracy abroad are reported daily. Their struggle to have their votes counted in home front elections, however, remains largely unknown.
The problems are collateral damage in the conflict between bureaucratic prerequisites and election deadlines that must be met despite unpredictable mail delivery of ballots.
As a result of such logistical problems, the votes of military personnel overseas often have gone uncounted until after the final results of elections have been announced.
But with this week’s unanimous approval in the Veterans and Military Affairs Committee of House Bill 1205, Colorado’s military personnel came a step closer to being fully re-enfranchised.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Colorado Springs, and Assistant House Minority Leader David Balmer, R-Centennial, aims to improve the voting system in two ways.
It would require mail-in ballots requested 35 days before the election to be issued to overseas military personnel at least 30 days prior to election. The deadline to receive and count military mail-in ballots would be extended eight days after the election.
A separate pilot program would test the ability for active duty, uniformed soldiers who are stationed overseas to register and vote electronically. If successful — and secure from fraud and privacy violations — electronic voting would resolve most of the problems in casting votes from overseas.
“While our troops are protecting our democracy, it is important that we do everything possible to protect their right to vote,” said Looper, who lives in El Paso County, home to five military installations, including Fort Carson Army Base and Peterson Air Force Base.
“We have a problem in getting the ballots back in time so that they can be counted,” said Looper, adding that if the ballots arrive too late in the field, it’s unlikely they’ll be returned before the election deadline.
“In the field, there is no access to a scanner or fax,” she said, adding that mail is delivered and dispatched sporadically.
“This process may not sound like a big deal to someone living in the United States,” said Balmer, a co-sponsor of the bill. “When you are fighting in a foreign country where there are a million other things on your mind — it can be challenging to meet deadlines.”
Balmer, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, said he observed numerous instances of soldiers requesting ballots but not receiving them during his deployments to Afghanistan and Bosnia.
“I have seen first hand where soldiers are not getting their ballots,” said Balmer.
Opponents questioned the security of an Internet voting system and suggested that the military promote early voting and the return of ballots by express mail.
“There really is no such thing as express mail when you’re a deployed soldier,” countered Balmer, who recalled long stretches of no mail being delivered when he was deployed, and then, suddenly 12 pallets of mail are dropped.
“You’ll get a letter from your spouse that she mailed months ago,” he said. “You’ll get 10 letters from your spouse on the same day. And you have to respond to every one of the letters, of course. It’s really hard. Now, you can e-mail your spouse — which is very, very nice.”
“The point is that mail delivery is so poor to deployed troops that you just cannot rely on it for voting,” said Balmer.
Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, who served 34 years in the Air Force, concurred.
“This is a very real problem,” said Lambert, who serves on the House committee. “Even if you go through the hassles associated with electronic mailing, it’s got to be a heck of a lot better than relying on the very, very slow mail system.”
Lambert said he, as well as other military personnel, attempted to cast votes in elections, but at times were disenfranchised. When you’re serving overseas, he said, there are only two ways to receive mail — in a diplomatic pouch or via the international mail system — and “both are unreliable.”
The bill has been endorsed by the U.S. Department of Defense and Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher.
“Clearly, there is a problem in facilitating votes from our military service personnel who are returning from or being deployed overseas,” said Buescher, who assured the legislators that, if the bill passes, his department will develop a secure system to implement it.
Buescher said it is essential “to establish a very carefully crafted series of requirements to make sure that this is done in a way that is secure and encrypted, makes sure that a person only votes once and that the person is properly identified.”
The proposed program is more practical and cost-effective than others. Buescher said that one state paid several million dollars to erect three kiosks in a foreign country — but only 92 soldiers cast votes.
“That was prohibitively expensive,” said Buescher.
The Uniformed Overseas Citizen Absentee Voting Act study of 2007 reported that 47 percent of military personnel who wanted to vote in 2007 were not able to do so. Of 992,034 absentee ballots requested in 2006, fewer than 332,000 were received and counted in elections.
Surveys of uniformed soldiers overseas have shown that 30 percent of the respondents were frustrated by the “bureaucratic red tape” required to register to vote, said Looper. Another 30 percent requested ballots, but either didn’t receive them or received them too late. An additional 28 percent said they didn’t know how to get a ballot.
Looper said that the current absentee voting system requires a soldier serving outside the country to ask for a ballot for a federal election and file a separate request to receive an absentee ballot from the state.
The pilot program will be funded by private donations, gifts and grants. A major expense is the computer software for the pilot program. That might cost as much as $300,000 because the system must interface with both federal and state computer programs while adhering to applicable election laws.
The electronic voting pilot program is limited to uniformed soldiers serving abroad, but it may be extended in the future to civilians, contractors, embassy staff and others.
“We start with the folks who are sacrificing the most for our country — our soldiers,” said Balmer, adding that embassies already have the ability to return ballots by fax or e-mail.